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British vs. American Communication Styles

March 1, 2000
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Featured Article
Consider the following examples of workplace incidents between American and British employees:

1. Leaving Early
A British worker asks his new American manager if he can have permission to leave work two hours early the following day as he has some personal errands to run.

The American replies that he trusts the worker to get his projects done, so if the employee needs to leave early one day, then that is a decision he can make on his own.

"Well, I wanted to make sure and get your permission," says the Brit. "I am planning to stay later on another day to make up the time."

"You know what needs to be done," answers the American. "As long as your work gets done, you can adjust your schedule as you see fit."

2. Styles of communication
An American executive is on a new work assignment in the U.K. One day, he overhears one of his British employees giving wrong information to a secretary about some proposals that are being sent out.

The American goes up to the British worker and corrects him. "You have those contact names completely backwards," he tells the employee. "The name on the Berlin package is for our contact in Frankfurt and the name on the Frankfurt package is for a firm in Berlin. If these proposals had gone out like this, it would have been a great embarrassment. You need to be a lot more careful in the future, do you understand?"

Why the Confusion?
Both of the above incidents are simple enough so that cultural differences wouldn't seem to get in the way. However, there are subtle but important cultural factors involved in each case.

In the first, the British worker is simply trying to get permission or approval from his manager to adjust his daily schedule. It is normal in the more hierarchical U.K. for workers to receive clear directions and approval from their superiors. In the more egalitarian and individualistic U.S., however, it is common for workers to have more control over their daily work.

Americans have specified goals and are often expected to use their own discretion in completing their jobs. The British, on the other hand, take more direction from their superiors and are a bit more concerned with conforming to expectations on the job.

In the second incident, the American executive feels a need to let an employee know of his mistake so that it won't be repeated in the future. The difference between the American and British styles is that an executive in the U.K. is unlikely to scold an individual so publicly.

It is more common in Great Britain to speak to people privately if their work needs to be corrected. To be reprimanded publicly would be quite unusual and may affect workplace relations between the two individuals.

Cartoon by Marc Tyler Nobleman.

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